It is obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic has evoked many of us to consider our health more seriously and take steps to ensure that our immune systems are as strong as they can be to fight both this virus and any others that we may encounter. In fact, 24% of supplement users have expanded their intake as a direct result of the outbreak . However, there are other effects to consider including the increase in numbers of those working from home and dealing with the impact of isolation on our mental health, with around one in seven now making use of supplements to improve mood and combat stress .
One point of contention within the supplement industry is whether the specific ingredients in an all-natural supplement have been selected for the consumers’ benefit, or whether corners have been cut to save money whilst still targeting a strong and growing market.
Is organic better?
Organic foods have been gaining popularity throughout the 21st century as individuals and families seek to avoid the intake of unnecessary pesticides, and there are also major benefits to our planet, such as water conservation and improved soil quality. However, it has been found that not only do organic varieties of fruit and vegetables contain less pesticide residue, but also fewer nitrates, and greater levels of vitamin compounds such as vitamin C . On top of this, these nutritious organics have also been shown to deliver between 20-40% more antioxidant activity, and although effects are somewhat uncertain, scientists have suggested that this may protect cells from ageing and the damage that could lead to cancer . Using organic extracts in supplements means that these benefits are retained and passed onto you, however they come at a cost that not all manufacturers will be willing to take on.
A strategy that is growing in popularity to manage both physical and emotional stress on the body and mind is the use of adaptogens. Adaptogens are a type of herbal ingredient that work by normalising the highs and lows of our overall wellbeing, by regulating the release of stress hormones . One adaptogen leading the way in the supplement world is Ashwagandha, also known as Indian Ginseng, a shrub which commonly grows in India, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa. It is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine and is thought to support both the immune system and manage cognitive stress. It handles their inextricable symbiosis, which explains why there was a 3995% increase in sales of the ingredient for sleep support in the US during 2020 .
When we see that ashwagandha’s powerful effects have been clinically trialled and proven, this makes us as consumers feel more confident that we will be able to see the results we are expecting from the herb, but it is important to note that the results of a clinical trial only apply to that specific manufacturer’s ashwagandha, and not every source of ashwagandha. The benefits of ashwagandha can be felt for both men and women and for different reasons, ranging from those now sitting in front of a computer at home all day and struggling with mental pressures, to those looking to boost their immune system by reducing physical stress.
However, not all Ashwagandha supplements are made equal. The first distinction comes from whether the source is an Ashwagandha powder, or an extract. Extracts are more potent because the key compound of the plant is extracted, whereas with a powder, the whole plant is dried, which means that there are a lot of other unnecessary constituents included. This means that you would need a much higher quantity of powder in your supplement to receive the same benefits, such as reduced stress and anxiety, as a much smaller amount of extract.
What are withanolides?
An important aspect of Ashwagandha’s potency is withanolides, which are naturally occurring steroids. These are considered to play an important role in the overall effect that the herbal ingredient has in your body, and there are three major withanolides that provide benefits including reducing stress and anxiety and promoting neural connections in your brain . Therefore, you may see a percentage of withanolides within the description of Ashwagandha, which can range from anywhere between 0.5% to 32.5%. It is true that a very low percentage of withanolides is less beneficial because more Ashwagandha will be needed to see the clinically proven effects, however there may also be negative side effects if the percentage is too high .
How is Ashwagandha extract produced?
Even within Ashwagandha extract, there is a further distinction. With some supplements you may see the compound Ashwagandha root mentioned, vs. just Ashwagandha. This is because some manufacturers include the leaves during extraction, however, it is the root extract which has been scientifically studied and proven to have effects. In a study by Consumer Lab, 16 Ashwagandha supplements were tested, and it was found that only 56% of them were approved for having an appropriate level of withanolides . Having too low levels is, as previously discussed, obviously a negative as it will reduce the positive effects. However, this has led to an increase in the use of the leaves in extracts as they are high in withanolides. This may sound like a positive, however, one withanolide that is found in Ashwagandha is also toxic to living cells and is not safe for human consumption – this is highly present in the leaves and therefore, whilst it may appear that using the leaves is beneficial, it may actually have a negative impact on your health .
How can you ensure that your Ashwagandha supplement is good quality?
To summarise, the best quality Ashwagandha is sourced from the root alone, and will be in an extract form, not a powder. You may also wish to look for what is known as a full-spectrum extract, which includes other important compounds including choline, amino acids, flavonoids, and sapponins, which are all thought to work in harmony within your body to produce physical and emotional stress reducing effects . However, the easiest way to feel confident that you’re ingesting Ashwagandha of only the highest quality is to find a supplement containing a standardised extract, such as KSM-66. This means that you can be sure that there are no discrepancies in extraction, and KSM-66 is also certified organic with proven clinical effects with a standardised 5% withanolides.